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My Revised Top Restaurants

 

January 3, 2022

It’s been two years since I wrote My Top 25 Restaurants which turned out to be more popular than I had anticipated. It’s been viewed over 1,100 times and was even included in The Mackenzie Room’s Valentine’s Day newsletter.

A lot has changed since then. A mere two months after I posted it, the world changed in a way that drastically affected the hospitality industry. Covid saw the closure of some remarkable restaurants from that list, most notably Wildebeest and The Pear Tree.

I was on a mission to visit 300 restaurants within 3 years, and in early 2020 I was at the 250 mark with nine months to go. I reached that goal and have tacked on another 26 restaurants in the ensuing year, giving me 76 more restaurants to pull from in my pool of experience. In that time, I moved from Vancouver to the Tri-Cities where I’ve tasted a number of local restaurants that I previously wouldn’t have thought twice about. So this year my list includes restaurants in Vancouver, North Van, Burnaby, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam.

Covid forced a lot of change. For me, it meant going out to eat at restaurants less, and with that came a deeper appreciation when I did. As such I’ve paired down the list realizing some restaurants don’t make the cut today, whereas they did in the before-times.

Before reading my list, it’s important to understand how I judge restaurant as it’s a method that allows me to put cafeterias on the same list as fine dining establishments. And so here is my revised list of my top 18 restaurants, in alphabetical order.

Absinthe Bistro

www.BistroAbsinthe.com

This unassuming restaurant on Commercial Dr is a lovely French-inspired eatery that is not well known. But it should be! In my dozen visits, I have never had a meal there that was anything less than exquisite.

Chef Cory is Canadian-born and did his culinary training in France, offering a creative take on French cuisine.  Staying true to its French bistro roots, their menu is small and changes weekly offering price-fix value with five star cuisine.

Breakfast Table

www.BreakfastTable.ca

Breakfast Table is a cheerful little eatery in South Granville that is only open for breakfast and lunch. But their name says it all, you go there to get your fill of eggs and other breakfast-related foods.

Touted as Asian-fusion, I would actually say it’s just damn creative. Apart from all the typical bennies, they also offer their own homemade coffee-crusted pork belly benedict and a braised short rib benedict. They have a chicken karaage hash, fried chicken omelette and a number of sweet options including zucchini cheddar sourdough waffle. Now in their sixth year, they are one of the tastiest brunch spots in town.

Brix and Mortar

www.BrixAndMortar.ca

Brix and Mortar is in their 23rd year, being one of the first restaurants in Yaletown. Their longevity is a testament to their commitment to quality food served in an upscale environment that’s both rustic and elegant.

I am going to let my bias shine through here – and this won’t be news to anyone who knows me – but I am not a fan of Yaletown. It feels like it’s douchebag ground zero. And so many of the restaurants cater to this demographic. Then there’s Brix and Mortar; a beacon in an over-priced, underwhelming culinary wasteland. They deliver quality dishes, cooked creatively and priced reasonably in a beautiful room nestled in a 1912 heritage building. So basically, they offer everything that Yaletown isn’t.

They have consistently paired casual fine dining with good service which can be a difficult balance to find in Vancouver, let alone in Yaletown. But as they were one of the first there, they set the standard for how they wanted to operate and didn’t deviate as the neighbourhood grew up around them.

Coquitlam Grill

The Coquitlam Grill

Sitting unassumingly on the edge of Lougheed Highway, the Coquitlam Grill looks like a cafeteria inside and out. Looking past their casual appearance, they offer home-cooked food that is reliably tasty and reasonably priced.

They have nailed consistency, offering the same level of quality regardless if you are there for breakfast, lunch or dinner. With friendly service and decent prices, they are frequently busy.  This is a spot you might drive past without a second thought, but locals know the secret that explains the line outside their door. As someone who’s been getting takeout from them weekly during Covid, I am hooked.

I have recently discovered my love for Latin cuisine and through this tasty experiment, none do it as well as Cuchillo. They set the bar high with their original take on Peruvian classics with a creative flair.

Cuchillo ofers a great selection of inspired, creative dishes that include a number of ceviches, half a dozen tasty tacos (like angus skirt steak with blueberry habanero jam) and some exquisite tapas like roasted sablefish. All meant for sharing and not a dud on the menu! For $35 each they will feed a small group with 6-7 items that will allow you to sample all the sections of their menu. But equally as impressive is their bar. They serve THE best margaritas in Vancouver. Period. In fact they are responsible for my new found love of margaritas, but none are as worthy as theirs.

España is a cozy little tapas restaurant on Denman street, known by the locals and a bit of a destination for those of us who believe good food is worth traveling for. Warm, inviting and cozy describes the ambiance.

With an inspired list of tapas and daily specials, there is no shortage of shareable dishes that span from small plates right up to main entrees such as their daily paella. In addition, they have an impressive charcuterie with a number of imported Spanish hams as well as a decent cheese list. This is the type of restaurant you camp out at for an evening, noshing on half a dozen items while sitting at one of their small tables, or perched at the bar. It has the kind of feel that makes you never want to leave… and maybe that’s the point.

As the name indicates, their menu is seafood-oriented with an abundant range of Ocean Wise options from fresh oysters to halibut poutine. That said, their beef tenderloin with truffle emulsion is steakhouse-worthy.

Conveniently located just a short walk up Lonsdale from the Quay, this restaurant is bright and airy with textured wooden tables along with a quaint fishing-village decor. It’s got a warm and inviting atmosphere that makes you feel comfortable and at ease.

Their daily specials are always creative and no-brainers like the Alaskan sablefish with tarragon beurre blanc sauce that I had on my first visit. It was worth crossing the ocean for (OK, Burrard Inlet but you get my point).

Fraser Park Restaurant

www.FraserParkRestaurant.com

Fraser Park Restaurant is a little diner in an out-of-the-way industrial park that attracts large crowds. Why? Because their food is unbelievable. What they lack in atmosphere they more than make up for in quality.

They are known for their brunch which is what attracts people to locate this eatery which is well-hidden. It’s as casual as they come with counter service, bare-bones furniture and plastic-wrapped tables.

Their menu looks standard with a lot of egg and pancake dishes that don’t stand out from other menus across the city. Where they differ is in the portion sizes and quality of the food that comes streaming out of their fast-paced kitchen. The dish I always order is Al’s Breakfast which consists of 2 eggs, bacon and 2 pancakes which was enough food for two large meals.

The blueberry pancakes were fluffy with a slight cake-like texture. The eggs were perfectly cooked and the bacon was some of best I’ve ever had! Not the typical stringy stuff, this was lean and chewy with crispy edges and a rich flavour. This cost less than $20 with tax and tip. To say they offer good value is a colossal understatement.

Grub is a tiny restaurant that’s so narrow you could easily miss it if you sneezed. But it’s worth knowing exactly where it is so you can experience what their loyal followers know and keep coming back for.

Their menu is inspired; offering timeless dishes with modern ingredients that bring out the natural flavours of the food. It’s the kind of menu where you struggle to pick just one thing as every dish looks amazing. And to help beat your willpower, for an additional $15 you can turn any entrée into a three course meal! On top of value and flavour, the room is quaint with funky wallpaper that is both original and eye catching. Grub really stands alone as a one-of-a-kind gem in a large culinary landscape.

Homer Street Café

HomerStreetCafeBar.com

Homer Street Café are know for their rotisseries, specifically chicken, but they also feature other meats daily. And like all good establishments, they have a family style offering for $49 per person.

Homer Street Café feels like it’s been around forever, but shockingly it’s only in its 9th year. It already feels like a Vancouver landmark. Everything about this restaurant is appealing. The rooms are beautiful. Housed in two historic buildings, each of the dining rooms has a different ambience to it. One feels more elegant while the other looks like a French brasserie with a black and white floor.

Their dinners are well known and they nail brunch as well, with some creative, savoury dishes that push past the traditional items you can find everywhere else in the city. The service is proficient and friendly, the room is comfy and the food is scrumptious. No wonder I keep thinking it’s a local classic.

Nightingale is a David Hawksworth restaurant with a varied and interesting menu of sharable items, so diverse, there’s something for everybody. They are also well known for not allowing any food modifications.

Nightingale is a well known hotspot for business executives trying to woo clients. It’s also one of those places where the people who want to see and be seen go, when they take a break from frequenting Yaletown. And despite all of that, they really deliver on the food which is why it’s also a place foodies frequent. It’s rare to see those three groups of people all at the same place, but that’s Nightingale.

They are situated on two levels with 160 seats, it’s amazing they can pump such delicious food out of their kitchen in a timely fashion. Plus it’s really a beautiful room and a great place to spend an evening enjoying some of the finer things while taking in the buzz that surrounds Nightingale. It seems like it would be the kind of place that’s all show, but it’s not… they deliver on all fronts.

 

Ophelia is the city’s first upscale Mexican restaurant, brought to us by the owners of the Flying Pig. This is the brainchild of chef Francisco Higareda who's worked as a sous chef in two and three Michelin starred restaurants.

The aim of Ophelia is to bring authentic, elevated Mexican food that differentiates it from the standard Tex-Mex fare you get elsewhere. The menu is a marriage of Chef Higareda’s family recipes and his fine-dining techniques, filling a void in Vancouver’s culinary landscape.

The room has a lot of atmosphere and they’ve done a fantastic job with the hand-painted mural. It has a lot of character that makes it hard to believe it’s a new establishment that daringly opened during Covid.

Salade de Fruits

www.SaladedeFruits.com

Salade de Fruits offers the most authentic French food reminiscent of sitting in a Parisian brasserie. I took a friend from France there for dinner and she said it was the only authentic French cuisine she had in Vancouver.

Salade de Fruits is the busiest unknown restaurant in Vancouver. That’s right, they are in their 21st year, are full most nights and on Saturdays for brunch, yet so many people have no idea they even exist. Located street-level in the Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver just off of Granville Street, this is one of the city’s best kept secrets.

Most French restaurants go for the more typical fancy French cuisine, whereas Sald de Fruits is more casual, fun and unassuming. Their menu is a chalkboard mounted on the wall with a myriad of ever-changing offers including a weekly 3-course prix fixe menu for $35. They source their baguette and croissants from Beaucoup Bakery around the corner and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried their eggs benedict served on a croissant. There is no better way to start your Saturday morning… or to end your Saturday evening.

Savio Volpe

www.SavioVolpe.com

This is a restaurant that sits on everybody’s list and there’s a good reason why. They deliver! While you can dine a la carte, they really shine when you come with a group of 6 or more and dine alla familia style.

The room is open and airy, with an Ikea-influenced look about it which seems slightly odd for a highly rated Italian restaurant. But it works. And to be honest, you’re there for the food and it steals the show.

Dining alla familia involves a chat with the server about the table’s likes and dislikes and then you sit back and wait for the parade of dishes that will slowly make their way from the open kitchen to your table. The smells that fill the airy space whet your appetite and the flavours deliver on that promise. Family style dining costs around $80 per person and you will leave feeling it was money well spent. This is a restaurant for special occassions, for group dining, for date night, or for a solo dinner at the bar. Basically any excuse will do.

If Savio Volpe and Tavola were Italian siblings, Savio would be the loud, showy brother and Tavola would be the classy, friendly sister. Both offer the best Italian food I have had in Vancouver, but with different approaches.

Tavola’s room is so warm and comfortable, with a maroon and cherry-wood interior that makes you feel like you are in someone’s home. And the service matches; it’s personable with a professional yet casual flare. This is one of the reasons I dined there seven times the year I discovered how good they are.

Their food is equally as delicious as Savio, yet it’s less on the fancy side and more what you’d expect if you were invited into an Italian foodie’s home. As with Savio, they promote family style dining with a slightly lower price point of $60-$65 per person for groups of four or six. For this you will experience a few salads, some daily crostinis, 2-3 of their homemade pastas, 24oz dry aged rib steak, brick chicken with roasted garlic jus, daily vegetables and a sample of their homemade desserts. If this doesn’t have you licking the screen right now, I don’t think we can be friends.

The Mackenzie Room

www.TheMackenzieRoom.com

I have deliberately not to rated any of the restaurants on this list, but I would be remiss if I didn’t fess up that The Mackenzie Room is my #1 favourite. They create dishes not found anywhere else. They sit at the top.

Sean Reeve is the chef but I don’t think that word does him justice. Food artist. Culinary genius. Ingredient magician. He sees combinations and ways of preparing food that others haven’t thought of. And as such the menu is a constant 12 items displayed on a chalk board which change with the seasons. And there’s really only one way to experience them; you go as a group of 4 and order the I Want It All menu. You systematically work through the menu from start to finish and experience the delicate flavour profiles, artistic plating and the continuity from one dish to the next. Each one stands on its own, but together they create a perfect meal. It’s hard to put a price on that sort of experience, but $68 feels like a bargain. I’ve been 10+ times now, but my first visit was the moment I realized my stomach could smile.

Torafuku's menu is constantly changing, with new additions being added that are plated beautifully and popping with delicious flavours. The concept is shared plates with a pan Asian flare.

Torafuku is a strange combination of contradictions that works beautifully. The space is industrial and cold, yet the service and ambience is warm and inviting. The food is fusion, yet the flavours are distinct and everything tastes comforting. This should not work, but it does. It really does!

What astounds me is the value. If you go in a group of 4+ and order the Omakase tasting menu, you can enjoy seven shared dishes that will leave you full and satisfied. And will only set you back $40-$50 per person. So worth it!

Zabu Chicken

www.ZabuChicken.com

Zabu Chicken isn’t the kind of restaurant you would expect to see on any “best of Vancouver” lists, but they have earned their spot on mine. They are cheap and cheerful and sometimes that’s what you want.

Zabu sits on Robson street amongst a sea of other Korean restaurants, many of which are fancier and more renown. And each time I pass by all of them and head back to Zabu for their tasty, succulent, fried chicken. I order mine with a sweet soy glaze that’s delicately flavoured and leaves a hint of sweetness on your lips. Fried chicken is my weakness and when I get a craving – which is more often than I am comfortable confessing to – Zabu is where I go.

In pre-Covid times it was full of Korean students which is always a good sign. The staff struggle with their broken English and the ambience makes you feel like you are in another land. It’s perfect and you can eat your fill of chicken, have a glass of wine, leave a tip and still spend under $30.